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Forget the Writing Rules

March 20, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 16, 2011

Even those who don’t spend several hours a day writing are familiar with a few of the basic rules—

1.  Start sentences with capital letters.
2.  Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
3.  End sentences with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.
4.  Never end a sentence with a preposition.

You’ve heard these, right? And you’ve probably tried to stick to them, at least with your formal writing.

But did you know that not all of these rules are true writing rules? Someone, somewhere, made up a couple of these.  For good reasons, they thought. But some of these “rules” needlessly burden writers.

So how about we forget them, those writing rules that aren’t rules?

Here are a few you can toss out . . .

Never start a sentence with a conjunction

Do it. Start sentences with conjunctions. Use the coordinating conjunction of one sentence to connect to the sentence that came before. I’ve already broken this so-called rule a couple of times in this article. There’s no reason not to, and using conjunctions to start a sentence gives the writer one more way to construct sentences—vital if you’re writing a 100,000 word manuscript.

Note also that what the rule-makers meant by this rule was not to use the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Plenty of subordinating conjunctions (because, until, while, if) are used to begin sentences every day.

Max asked how I felt. But I didn’t want to tell him the truth.

The little boy stuck out his tongue. And his mother did nothing. So I crossed my eyes, blinked, and turned both of them into frogs. At least I did in my imagination.

Never end a sentence with a preposition

If you followed this non-rule, you’d certainly create some stilted constructions.

It’s not exactly what I’d been thinking about (or of). (It’s not exactly that of which I’d been thinking.)

I wasn’t sure which manager I should talk to (or with). (I wasn’t sure with which manager I should talk.)

He wondered who she planned to go with. (He wondered with whom she planned to go.)*

I know what I’m talking about. (I know about what I’m talking. Wow. That’s awful.)

You know who I’m talking about. (You know about whom I’m talking.)*

Who’d you want to give it to? (To whom did you want to give it?)

Can you imagine your characters using some of these phrases? The effect would be stuffy. Instead, let them speak (in dialogue) or think as their characters would. As flesh and blood people would.

Don’t worry about prepositions at the ends of sentences except if the preposition is unnecessary.

Where’s is at? (Where is it is sufficient.)

Where are you going to? (Where are you going is sufficient.)

Never split infinitives

Go ahead and split them. We’re not talking about atom splitting here. The skies will not roll up. You’ll not be the harbinger of the end of the world.

 The king has plans to personally, and handsomely, thank his rescuers.

She vowed to once again remember her mother’s advice.

I’d hoped to readily acquiesce, but I wasn’t quite so happy by the time I heard all the concessions I’d be forced to make.

Could you word these sentences differently? Of course. Several different ways with different rhythms. But separating to from the verb gives you yet another tool for building phrases and sentences.

Never use none with plural verb forms

Very simply, none is sometimes singular and sometimes plural.

When none is used for a singular noun or for a mass noun (money, furniture, equipment), use a singular verb.

When none is used for a plural noun, use a singular or a plural verb, depending on your meaning.

All of the following are correct.

None of the girls was ready for the dance. (Not one)

None of the girls were ready for the dance. (Not any of them)

None of the music was appropriate. 

None of the furniture is fancy.

None of the musicians were dressed appropriately. 

None of the musicians was dressed appropriately.

None of the family want to go to the park.

None of the family wants to go to the park.

Always/Never use the serial comma

This one’s up to you and your publisher’s style requirements. The serial comma is the final comma in a list of three or more items. (It often comes before a coordinating conjunction.)

These are correct with and without the comma.

I want a tiara, ruby slippers, a feather boa, and an emerald ring.

I want a tiara, ruby slippers, a feather boa and an emerald ring.

Jenny cried, laughed, or snorted; I couldn’t tell which through my own tears.

Jenny cried, laughed or snorted.

Never write in sentence fragments

Right. As if writers don’t do this all the time. And to good effect.

You don’t need to always write in complete sentences. And your characters certainly don’t always need to speak complete sentences in their dialogue.

Yes, the fragments should make sense. But they don’t need to be full sentences.

Was and were indicate passive voice and you should never use passive voice

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and there are two errors in this non-rule. Let’s look at the first error first.

It’s not the use of was and were that indicates passive voice. Passive voice refers to a construction where instead of the subject of the sentence performing an action, the subject is acted upon.

These are examples of the passive voice.

Samson was overwhelmed by Delilah. (Samson, our subject, did not do the overwhelming.)

Peace and love were overtaken by angst and turmoil. (The compound subject of peace and love was acted on by angst and turmoil.)

Broken promises should be ignored by those who love us. (Promises are not doing the ignoring.)

These are examples of the active voice.

Samson was an overwhelming warrior.

Peace and love were strong, but they couldn’t stand up to angst and turmoil.

Broken promises killed her marriage.

The second error? Passive voice is sometimes necessary and writers are allowed to use it. We use it when we want to hide or don’t know the person or thing responsible for an action. We can also use it when the agent of the action is less important than what happened.

Mistakes were made and confidences betrayed.

Little Jamie was mauled by a dog that came out of nowhere.

___________________________________

Are there real rules you should abide by (by which you should abide)? Yes. But these are not those.

Learn the rules that allow you to communicate with your readers, that allow you to create realistic worlds into which your readers can run with eagerness and abandon.

But don’t let non-rules bind you.

Don’t be limited by rules that are no rules at all.

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* Yes, this can be said He wondered whom she planned to go with (and You know whom I’m talking about). But if the sentences were in your character’s POV, how would he be likely to word them? Most people don’t write whom and they don’t think it. Be true to your characters. Use whom after a preposition, but otherwise, think of your character and your audience.

***

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Tags:     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

3 Responses to “Forget the Writing Rules”

  1. TravelinOma says:

    I’ve added your blog to my “Read EVERY time” list. Your suggestions are invaluable. Especially to a newbie. Thanks!

  2. TravelinOma, I’m so glad you find the info useful. Isn’t it wonderful that we have so many ways of crafting good stories?

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